A Report of Discussion on ‘The State of Democracy in Thailand’ 

By CSEAS Staff   

March 30, 2021

On March 27, 2021, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Jindal School of International Affairs, O.P. Jindal Global University, organized a discussion on ‘The State of Democracy in Thailand’. The speakers for the discussion included Dr. Ayako Toyama, Associate Professor at the University of Tsukuba; Dr. Duncan McCargo, Professor of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen; Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich, Director of the Regional Center for Human Rights Study and Coordination at the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University; and Mr. James Buchanan, Visiting Lecturer at Mahidol University. Harsh Mahaseth, Research Analyst at CSEAS, introduced and welcomed all the speakers. He briefly discussed the theme of the panel discussion. The discussion was chaired by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen, the Executive Director of CSEAS. 

Monarchy: A Boon or Bane for Democracy?  
Dr. Ayako Toyama spoke about the Thai monarchy and protests. Most demonstrations by students have been continuing since last year, making this the largest and longest political demonstration since 2014. The demonstration has one new point, which is that the students are demanding for royal reforms in addition to constitutional reforms and the resignation of the Prime Minister. The students believe that monarchy should be under constitution as they think that the current monarchy is an obstacle to democratization. Some Thai intellectuals have been criticizing Thailand’s constitutional monarchy as partly an absolute monarchy. Looking back on the history of the world, there are other countries that have adopted a monarchy that has characteristics both of a constitutional monarchy and an absolute monarchy. One of them is Japan from the Meiji Revolution to the end of World War II. Dr. Toyama makes a comparison between the two monarchies.  

Japan adopted the Meiji constitution from 1890 to 1947. Under the Meiji constitution, the emperor had sovereignty, was the head of state, sacred and inviolable. The Meiji constitution had serious problems with respect to democracy. One problem was the relationships between the emperor and the military. Even before World War II, democratization of Japan was gradually progressing, and party politics began to mature in the Taisho era (1912-1926). However, after the young Emperor Showa (Hirohito) took the throne, the military expanded its power by using the authority of the emperor for its own sake. The military took advantage of the independence of commandership to eliminate cabinet and parliamentary control over the military. In the early Showa period, the democratization of Japan was suspended, and the military began to rule the nation dictatorially. One of the reasons for Japan’s failure to democratize is that the Meiji constitution allowed the emperor and the military to connect, and the cabinet could not control the military.  

In Thailand’s case, it adopted a democratic government with the king as head of state. The country’s sovereignty is owned by the king and the people, which is different from the other nations. There is a Privy Council in Thailand; Japan also had one pre-World War II. The Thai Privy Council consists of military, public officials and people from legal professions. The king has drifted himself out of the constitutional monarchy to support the army, and the army used the king’s authority to seize power. As a result, the democratization process could fail if the cabinet and parliament cannot control the military. It is necessary to break the connection between the monarchy and the military so that the military cannot use the authority of the king to seize power.

On the question of the monarchy’s future, Dr. Toyama spoke about the difficulty for Thailand to make a reform as even Japan could not have reformed the monarchy on its own. After losing in World War II, institutional reforms regarding the monarchy were carried out by the United States. It is important for Thailand to remind the capitalists, upper-class and military that the authority of the royal family should be limited for the development of the nation. Japan suffered great damage to the country’s political and socio-economics in the past and hopefully, Thailand can learn from this.

Military and Democratic Transition
Dr. Duncan McCargo stated that the military has been centrally involved in Thailand politics, especially since 1932. The relationship between the military and democratic transition has not been a consistently positive one. The 1932 revolution or coup was a result of efforts by the military and civilians. The absolute monarchy ended in 1932 due to the involvement of the military against the monarchy in the revolution, because there was no popular uprising or mass movement against the monarchy. After the 1932 revolution, many elements in the military have been backpedaling from the position of upending the monarchy. Since 1932, the military has taken a strong position as a key player in Thai politics. From the 1950s and 1960s, the military has become a close ally of the monarchy. The military in many ways has supported to reconstruct the power of the monarch in Thailand. There is a complex relation between the monarchy and the military and democratic transition.    

The military excels at staging coups: they have had 13 successful and 11 attempted coups since 1932. The country has experienced the maximum number of coups in the world. The occurrence of a military coup has become a central part of Thailand’s political reality, as coups are constantly utilized as per the government’s need for a re-establishment. Attesting to this, Dr. McCargo refers to the work of Dr. Chai-Anan Samudavanija, who wrote about “the vicious circle of Thai politics.” According to this cycle, Thailand has a new constitution promulgated, parliament is established and elections are held for a few years before another political crisis occurs. To ‘resolve’ the political crisis the military stages a coup and then the constitution is rewritten and everything starts all over again. A number of recent coups have been “promissory coups.” After every coup, the military says that it will not stay for long, but this has not been the case since the May 2014 coup. The alliance of military and monarchy makes it difficult to stage successful protests in Thailand.  

Could there be a future rift between the military and the monarchy? This relationship is currently a black box. In theory a split could take place due to the military’s interest not being synonymous with that of the monarchy. The military originally initiated the alliance as a strategy, during the post-cold war period. There seems to be a deep-rooted contestation between what the military wants and what the monarchy wants, since the monarchy does not completely trust the military as a result of its involvement in the 1932 coup. The legitimacy of the current military-dominated Thai government is not accepted by large numbers of digital natives: generation-z. Therefore, the status quo cannot be maintained simply by suppressing protests and demonstrations. The seeds for an eventual collapse have been planted.

Civil Society and the Protests
Dr. Titipol Phakdeewanich started by discussing the role of military in Thai politics by saying that, when one looks at the way the military can stay in power, they must also look at the support it gets from the country’s conservatives. The military portrays itself as the correctional mechanism of democracy and capitalizes on the sentiment to preserve ‘Thainess’, which is popular amongst the conservatives.   

On the role of civil society, it is a popular understanding that power belongs to the people. However, in reality power is concentrated in the political establishment which is a major problem. This power concentration is being countered by young people who are getting more engaged in protests, especially after the dissolution of the Future Forward Party in 2020 (the Future Forward Party was established in 2018, and now known as Move Forward Party). Further, a large number of young people were campaigning for the Future Forward Party even though some of them did not have the voting rights in Thailand’s 2019 election. Social media is one of the major tools through which young people contribute, and access to information acts as a tool for fast mobilization. The young people are not ignorant, and their brand of politics must be supported. Larger distributional questions of public resources are also of consideration as government priority and negligence towards the youths push them into politics.     

The civil society in Thailand is perceived as a threat to state security and is considered as a troublemaker. However, the main challenge for civil society to function is the need for financial support. But when foreign funding occurs via international donors etcetera, civil groups are ‘demonized’ and externalized as the west-backed by the Thai government. Such groups are portrayed as entities which do not work in the interest of Thai democracy. The role of students has been critical, historically speaking. However, in the short-term Thai democracy does not look so bright, but the future does look bright. Once the idea has been planted, with people getting access to more information, the coming generations will lead to a long-term change in Thai democracy through the process of evolution.   

On the question on the role of students and the spillover effects of Myanmar’s protests on Thailand, Dr. Phakdeewanich discussed the similarities in how these students have been suppressed by military and both nations have experienced freedoms of democracy before militarization. Still, it is not easy for students of these two countries to make progress due to violent state repression. The main problem for democracy in both countries is ASEAN. The ASEAN Charter describes the principle of non-intervention in other states’ affairs which is a limiting factor for regional support. So, the youths continue protests in a very anti-democratic environment.   

On the question of the role of civil society and whether it is enough to influence a robust democracy, he said the two sides to the problem in the civil society; with the main issue of military suppression. Civil society is viewed as fractional and overly political. It is often villainized as anti-state and ant-stability. The other issue is that certain misinformed civil society groups also exist. For example, some civil groups have protested against liberalization reforms owing to their ignorance. The government is trying to claim the ownership of civil society. Therefore, it is challenging for civil society to function in Thailand.    On the future of the state of democracy in Thailand, he expressed his optimism in the long-term, and said when this generation grows up with their liberal views, the prospects look good. Therefore, various actors ought to support youth politics. 

Role of the International Community
Mr. James Buchanan’s discussion focused on how the international community can play a role in helping Thailand’s future with democratization. He queried the validity of the term “the international community” which, as a phrase, became prevalent after the fall of the USSR and the subsequent transition into a unipolar world. Before this, the world had been defined more by the “blocs” and “spheres of influence” of the great powers. 

In the 21st century, the world may now be returning to a polarised state of blocs, with implications for Thailand and other countries in the ASEAN region and beyond. As an example, he pointed to the case of Joshua Wong’s claim that the world was entering into a “new cold war”, with Hong Kong as “the new Berlin”. This new cold war may have a chilling effect for advocates of democracy in countries like Thailand, due to the rise of what has been called “sophisticated authoritarianism”, in the form of laws regulating alleged “interference” by INGOs, international media, social media platforms, etc. Underpinning the “sophisticated” authoritarianism is, as always, the more brutal forms of dictatorship, such as those currently being played out in Myanmar. 

During the questions and answers session, he was presented with the question why we are witnessing dissimilarity in international intervention in Myanmar and Thailand, to which he argued that in the context of Myanmar, the tragic loss of life, as well as the near complete shutdown of the economy have garnered more attention from the outside world. Not only the West, but also other countries, such as China, Japan and Thailand are all heavily invested in Myanmar through Foreign Direct Investments. Every country with a stake in Myanmar is interested in a return to normalcy – they only differ in whether the best way to achieve that is to support the regime, or the protestors. He concluded with the notion that the path for democratization in Thailand stands at the crossroads and the immediate concern is whether Thailand will see some sort of more violent crackdown from the state on the pro-democracy protestors.

Vote of Thanks 
At the end of a lively session, Shivangi Dikshit, Research Analyst at CSEAS, thanked all the speakers and Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen for their insightful analyses and comments. She also thanked the university administration for extending all the necessary support to successfully organize the event.   

The report is prepared by CSEAS staff members – Shubh Sahai, Ishita Dutta, Shivangi Dikshit, Sanjana Dhar, Vikas Nagal, Jyot Shikhar Singh, Rhea Rayidi and Harsh Mahaseth – and edited by Dr. Nehginpao Kipgen in consultation with the speakers.